A Guide to Keyword Difficulty

Published: Apr 06, 2020
Last Updated:
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Whether you offer digital products to multi-national audiences or are a mom and pop shop serving a local community, your online search rankings play a huge role in your success. This is why it is vital to understand how to increase traffic to your site using search engine optimization (SEO). The ease or difficulty of that task will depend heavily on keyword difficulty.

SEO refers to the strategies used to optimize your performance on search engine results pages (SERP). Ideally, when someone searches a keyword or term you have targeted, you will rank within the top 10 results for that query.

The competition for high SERP rankings can be fierce for some keywords. That makes it very important to understand how to determine your keyword difficulty and the best way to target high difficulty keywords.

What is keyword difficulty?

In short, keyword difficulty refers to the level of competition you face for a particular set of keywords and how hard it will be for you to rank in the top search results for them.

Understanding the competition for your keyword, coupled with search volume and other factors, will help you make an informed decision on your keyword targeting strategy.

What factors affect keyword difficulty?

Keyword difficulty is determined using a variety of different factors, including:

  • On-page SEO - Pages that rank high for high-difficulty keywords implement numerous techniques to ensure everything—including page content, meta tags, URLs, and images—work together to improve the page's SERP ranking. If the pages you compete with have fine-tuned their on-page SEO, the keyword difficulty is going to be much higher.
  • Domain Authority - Essentially, this reflects how valuable Google believes the content on your website is and whether or not you are a voice of authority on your subject matter. While many factors influence your domain authority ranking, one of the most important factors examines how many websites link back to yours. The higher the authority of the sites that link to you, the more weight that will carry in your ranking. The marketing company Moz has created a helpful tool allowing you to measure domain authority.
  • Page Authority - This is similar to domain authority in that it rates how valuable your content is. However, instead of looking at your website as a whole, it focuses only on a specific page on your site. Like domain authority, the best way to increase page authority is by increasing the number of quality sites linking to your page. Moz has also developed a page authority tool to see where you and others stand in the rankings.

User Intent and SEO

One extremely important factor in keyword difficulty is user intent. Intent refers to the actual information that users are looking for when they type in a particular search term.

In the past, search engines didn’t take intent into account, and sites could use black-hat techniques to sneak their way into the top search results. Over time, search engine algorithms have evolved to become more "human-like" and understand what content people want to see when they type in a particular search term.

For instance, consider the following search query: "quick snacks to make."

If you search this term and click on a recipe—only to find it's going to take an hour to prepare—you're probably going to click away and look for another. If the next page you click on has a recipe that only takes 10 minutes, you're more likely to stay on that page and follow the recipe.

If most people searching for "quick snacks to make" follow that same behavior pattern, the search engine is going to learn the second page has content more aligned with the search intent behind the keyword.

The result is that, for high difficulty keywords, the content at the top of the search results is likely going to be very closely aligned with the user intent behind the keywords.

How to Calculate Keyword Difficulty

There are several free tools available you can use to calculate keyword difficulty. Most allow you to compare several keywords to see how they stack up against each other.

  • SEMRush - Its free tool lets you compare the difficulty of up to 10 keywords.
  • Moz - Its Keyword Explorer tool includes keyword difficulty scoring amongst several other SEO tools.
  • SmallSEOTools - Its free keyword difficulty checking tool doesn't require any registration; the only downside is it only lets you check one keyword at a time.

Most tools calculate the keyword difficulty score on a scale of 1 to 100.  The lower the score, the easier it is going to be to rank in the top search results for that keyword.

What constitutes "high difficulty" varies depending on who you ask, but SEMRush defines low difficulty as below 60 and high difficulty as above 80.

How to Target High-Difficulty Keywords

So, what happens when you want to target high difficulty keywords and increase your SERP?  The first step is to do your due diligence with keyword research. You could spend a lot of time and money trying to rank for a high difficulty keyword only to realize later there were more relevant lower-difficulty keywords you could have targeted instead.

Keyword Research

Keyword research will ensure you choose the right keywords for your business. This process will help you identify the best keywords to target and allow you to create a framework for your content strategy.

Keyword research will also allow you to filter out extremely high difficulty keywords and find words that fit within the sweet spot of lower difficulty and high search volume.

Identify your starting terms/topics

Often called "seed keywords," these starting keywords are the ones already floating around in your head about the topics your site addresses. They’re what you think your customers or audience will be searching for when looking for the products you have to offer.

Take that list of keywords and plug it into a keyword research tool to learn about related keywords as well as search volumes.

You can look at the related keywords to gain a better understanding of what people are searching for and what kinds of questions they are asking about your topics.

Use keyword search tools to expand your list

As you work to expand your list of keywords, there are many different tools you can use. One of the simplest is to use the recommended search terms in the Google search bar. Go to Google, type in your keyword, and see what other suggested search terms appear.

Other search engines, like Yahoo and Bing, will also suggest search terms for you to incorporate into your research.

Another free tool from Google is the Google Ads Keyword Planner. This tool not only provides you with a downloadable list of potential keywords but also includes several metrics on each keyword, including the average number of monthly searches and level of competition.

For another tool., SEO guru Neil Patel created the free Ubersuggest, which you can use to discover new keywords. This tool includes information on search volume, cost-per-click, and level of competition for each keyword.

Bonus: Neil also offers a free basic spreadsheet to help you track your keyword research.

Conduct research to refine your list

Once you've created your list, it's time to analyze it and refine it down to the best keywords for you. Start by manually scanning the list and eliminating any entries that are irrelevant or nonsensical.

For example, if one of the keywords on the list for "hiking backpacks" ended up being "Russian leather satchel," you may want to eliminate it because it doesn't make sense in relation to hiking backpacks.

Next, sort your remaining list for search volume. Add in the difficulty score for each keyword if you haven't done so already. The goal here is to analyze your list and find keywords that fit into the sweet spot of higher search volumes and lower difficulty scores.

If you've done all that and still find yourself with a set of high difficulty keywords, buckle up, because your next step is to optimize your site as precisely as possible if you hope to rank on the first page of search results. Even if you are using lower difficulty words, you’ll want to make your site the best it can be so your SERP ranking will increase.

On-Page SEO

The best thing you can do to increase your SERP ranking is to maximize your on-page SEO performance. Use a checklist to work through your site and ensure your on-page SEO is in tip-top shape. The more difficult keywords that you are targeting, the more precise this needs to be. Be strategic about placing your keywords in places such as your meta tags and the page URL.

When editing the meta title and description for your page, don't simply pop your keyword into those places. Take time to create compelling descriptions that are carefully aligned with the search intent for your keywords. The meta title and description are what consumers will see when viewing search engine results, so it's important to have content that will make them want to visit your site.

Enhance the benefits of your site's images by ensuring they’re relevant to your audience. Don't put full-size hi-res images onto your site, as this can create extended loading times. Instead, reduce the file size of your images and include descriptive alt-text for each picture.

Format your text for readability, using small paragraphs and plenty of headings and subheadings. Don't use wacky fonts or color schemes that make your text difficult to read.

Last, but certainly not least, be sure to include plenty of links within your page. This should be a healthy mix of internal links (links that refer to other pages within your site) and external links (links that refer to outside websites).

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO refers to optimization that takes place outside of the website itself to improve your search engine ranking. Off-page SEO is important because it essentially reflects what others are saying about your website. A site with lots of other high-authority websites linking to it benefits greatly.

One of the best ways to gain high-quality links to your site is to create content for other sites. When you can find other sites with complementary audiences, you can guest blog for them and share your authority with potential customers while building quality backlinks to your site.

You can also become a regular on discussion boards and blogs popular in your niche. When you become a respected voice, people will take notice and help you build awareness, reputation, and ultimately build your off-page SEO.

Another popular method for growing off-page SEO authority is "dead link building," a practice that involves searching for sites that have "dead," or broken, backlinks to resources similar to the ones you provide on your site. Once you've identified a dead link, you can contact the site owner and ask them to replace the dead link with an active link from your site.

Once you've built up an impressive number of backlinks to your site, along with stellar on-page SEO, you're well on your way to successful ranking for your website, even if you are facing some tough keywords.


The battle for search engine ranking can be fierce, particularly if you are trying to rank for difficult keywords. However, if you do your research and understand what your consumers are looking for, as well as what tactics can be used effectively to optimize your site's SEO, you are in a position to have a fighting chance to rank even for highly difficult keywords.

To maintain a top-notch SERP ranking, stay up-to-date with information from SEO thought leaders who will keep you updated on new tactics and strategies to help you stay on top of your SEO game.

This article was written by Compose.ly writer Whitney Hickerson.


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